Mia Wasikowska Double Feature – Judy and Punch / Piercing

Making her screen debut in two episodes of Australian medical drama All Saints (2004-5) as the teenage daughter of a sex worker, Mia Wasikowska has never been one to shy away from difficult roles. After making her international breakthrough as the lead actress in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), she has gone on to work with a string of talented filmmakers such as Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, 2011); Gus Van Sant (Restless, 2011); John Hillcoat (Lawless, 2012); Park Chan-wook (Stoker, 2013); Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013); Richard Ayoade (The Double, 2013); David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars, 2014); Sophie Barthes (Madame Bovary, 2014); and Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak, 2015). This double feature selection showcases two of her more recent films, both of which include some of the more violently confrontational material in her career.

Judy and Punch (2019) is a feminist take on the origins of the famous puppet show characters Punch and Judy, laced with streaks of dark comedy appropriate to a tradition which saw domestic violence and brutal thuggery as suitable topics for children’s entertainment. It’s consciously anachronistic in its approach, more fable than authentic historical recreation. Although writer/director Mirrah Foulkes has chosen to model her setting on England in the 1770s, with the Montsalvat artist’s colony in Victoria standing in for the landlocked village of Seaside, the background details of a country in which the theatres are only just beginning to open up again refers back to the Restoration period of the 1660s when the characters of Punch and Judy (originally Joan) are first known to have appeared. Aspects of the musical score emphasise this story’s dislocation from historical verisimilitude – the Punch and Judy shows are accompanied by François Tétaz’s synth-heavy arrangements of Bach (a cross between Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach and ’80s disco hit Hooked On Classics); and there are some surprising song selections, ranging from Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” (1974) to Kirin J Callinan’s bizarre 2019 cover version of Austrian band Opus’ ’80s #1 hit “Life is Life” (which I had until now believed to be the creation of Slovenian industrial band Laibach).

Judy (Mia Wasikowska) was swept off her feet when the charismatic performer Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) came to the town of Seaside with his travelling puppetry show. They married and left town together, with Judy proving to be a quick study and rapidly becoming proficient at all aspects of their stagecraft. Their growing fame was cut short when Judy became pregnant and they were forced to return to her hometown for lack of funds. There they’ve been living with Judy’s kindly old family retainers – Maid Maude (Brenda Palmer), her dementia-prone husband Scaramouche (Terry Norris) and Toby the Dog (Trinny). They continue to hone their craft with performances in the village tavern, raking in a pittance from the crowd but waiting and hoping for the moment when talent scouts from the city will happen upon their act and take them away to fame and glory. However, there are signs of cracks in the facade of their professional and personal relationship. Judy is concerned at the increasingly violent content of their puppet shows. Punch claims that he’s simply giving the public what they want – superficially plausible when you consider that they live in a town which holds regular Stoning Days for women condemned as witches under the flimsiest pretext – but it’s clearly a symptom of Punch’s increasing dependence on alcohol, an addiction which Judy had been able to keep under control while they were on the road but is clearly becoming a more serious problem.

While Punch may have originated the puppet show, it’s obvious that Judy has the greater talent and is the one holding everything together – until one dark day when Punch accidentally causes the death of their baby and, when confronted, beats his wife to death (or so he thinks). He dumps her body in the outskirts of the forest (which the villagers believe to be inhabited by witches) and quickly sets about framing Maude and Scaramouche for her death. Fortunately for Judy, her body is discovered by Scotty (Daisy Axon), a young girl living in the forest with a community of outcast women. Gradually recuperating under the care of Dr. Goodtime (Gillian Jones), Judy slowly adjusts to life in this new community while planning her revenge on Punch.

Care has been taken care to incorporate a range of characters and plot elements associated with the source material. Punch, Judy, the baby (Summer & Scarlett Dixon), the Doctor, Mr. Scaramouche and Toby the Dog all come from the puppet show, as does the string of sausages with which Toby absconds. Also making an appearance here are the Constable (Benedict Hardie), the Beadle (Tom Budge), the Hangman (split among characters), Pretty Polly (Lucy Velik), the Crocodile, the Ghost and Hector the Horse.

Foulkes has done a wonderful job of coming up with her own variation on the Punch and Judy story. Although there has been plenty of academic attention to the domestic abuse inherent in the show, I’m not aware of any other fictional take which confronts this aspect head on. Foulkes exhibits a delicate touch in her depiction of violence – while she doesn’t shy away from what’s going on, she’s more interested in showing the effects of violence, both physical and behavioural, than the acts themselves. In staging Punch’s pivotal assault on Judy, she’s careful to keep Judy offscreen during his violent onslaught – we see him wielding his stick, but are thankfully spared the need to witness the impacts. The damage he inflicts on her is only really seen after she’s been tended to by Dr. Goodtime, when she’s safely in the embrace of a sympathetic community familiar with trauma. Although there is arguably a degree of wish fulfilment in the nature of the plot’s resolution, I’d counter that this is entirely appropriate given the way in which Foulkes has framed the whole narrative as a fable.

Mirrah Foulkes is primarily know for her acting work, with prominent appearances in the final season of All Saints (2009), the first season of Harrow (2018), and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013). She began making her own short films in 2012 and Judy and Punch marks her feature debut as a director. More recently she has directed three episodes of the Stan Original series Eden (2021). Damon Herriman won Best Actor at the 9th AACTA Awards for his performance as Punch, which is well deserved – his performance displays flashes of the charisma which allowed Punch to become a successful performer, while also conveying his character’s contemptible hypocrisy. I’d only previously encountered him in the second season of Marieke Hardy’s Laid (2012), in which he plays a similarly vile character, although he’s apparently better known as a semi-regular lowlife in Justified (2010-15) and Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019). Mia Wasikowska was nominated for Best Actress, but lost out to a worthy competitor in Aisling Franciosi, who won the award for her role in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018). The film’s only other AACTA Award went to François Tétaz for Best Original Music Score – he also won Best Soundtrack Album at the following year’s APRA Music Awards. Tetaz is a notable figure from the Melbourne music scene, forming the Dorobo record label and the Moose Mastering studio. I’m most familiar with him from his work as a member of Shinjuku Thief (1992-97), Loggerhead (1993-94) and Snog (1997-2003). His work as a producer takes in bands such as Gotye, Architecture in Helsinki and Spiderbait, but his highest profile credit is the score for Wolf Creek (2005), which won the APRA Award for Feature Film Score of the Year.

Wasikowska’s previous film, Piercing (2018), is a far more viscerally disturbing experience. It was adapted by writer/director Nicolas Pesce from the novel Piercing [Piasshingu] (1994) by Murakami Ryū, who also wrote the original 1997 novel on which Miike Takashi’s Audition [Ōdishon] (1999) was based. Anybody familiar with that film will immediately be alerted to the type of experience they might be in for – and if that one wasn’t for you, Piercing definitely won’t be.

The film opens with Reed (Christopher Abbott) standing over his baby daughter’s cradle with an ice pick in his hand while his wife Mona (Laia Costa) is asleep in the bed behind him. Fighting down the urge to stab her, he concludes (prompted in part by the voice he hears coming from his child) that his only option is to go away for a few days on a fake business trip and kill a sex worker. Reed is a neatness freak obsessed with order and careful planning, so before going on his trip he has filled a notebook with a detailed step-by-step plan of what to do and how to do it, which he rehearses repeatedly in his hotel room before phoning for a bondage specialist who won’t be freaked out at the prospect of being tied up.

Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) is the woman despatched in answer to his call, more casual and less fastidious than Reed, far more an agent of disruption and chaos. Their initial negotiations are much more comfortable for Jackie than for Reed, but his startlement at her first unexpected advance leads her to hide in the bathroom. When he eventually summons up the nerve to enter, he discovers her popping pills and stabbing herself in the leg with scissors. And the evening progresses from there, with various messed up interactions which bear little resemblance to Reed’s plans – but just might be in accord with Jackie’s desires.

Piercing is a stylistic homage to the giallo in which it’s difficult ever to be sure exactly how much of what you’re seeing and hearing is really happening within the world of the film. The opening credits play over shifting perspectives of an apartment block – but it doesn’t quite feel like a real building, and the end credits confirm that this is in fact a miniature. Adding to the sensation of deliberate artifice is the lack of an original music score – instead, the score is composed exclusively of extracts from various film soundtracks. Dominating proceedings is Bruno Nicolai’s score for The Red Queen Kills Seven Times [La dama rossa uccide sette volte] (1972), but Goblin’s themes for Deep Red [Profondo rosso] (1975) and Tenebrae [Tenebre] (1982) are also prominent, supported by selections from Stelvio Cipriani’s score for Tentacles [Tentacoli] (1977) and Piero Piccioni’s score for Camille 2000 (1969). This conjuration of associations with three gialli, a Jaws rip-off and a sex film points to the director’s influences while creating the effect of an internal soundtrack running through one or the other (or perhaps both) of the protagonists’ minds. And then there are Reed’s various hallucinations – both auditory (such as two successive conversations with his wife on the phone which cannot both be true) and visual (blurring the line between dream, traumatic flashback and drug-induced reality distortion). Zach Galler’s cinematography and Sofía Subercaseaux’s editing are vital components in bringing all of these elements together, although it must be said that the overall effect isn’t always coherent and obscures some of the details of Reed’s past which Pesce appears to expect his audience to pick up on.

This is Nicolas Pesce’s second feature, following on from the similarly perverse (if more low-key in appearance) The Eyes of My Mother (2016). He has since gone on to make The Grudge (2020) – the fourth instalment in the US reinterpretation of Shimizu Takashi’s core J-horror work Ju-On (2000) – and an episode of Monsterland (2020) – a horror anthology series based on Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters (2013). I’m unfamiliar with Christopher Abbott’s other work, but he appears to have made an impression as a semi-regular cast member of Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-16) and played the main character in Catch-22 (2019), an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel.

I’m still not completely sure what to make of Piercing – I think it would take another viewing to form a clearer opinion about it, but whether I’d want to do so is another matter. It’s certainly an interestingly perverse work, but I’d struggle to recommend it to anybody unprompted. That said, Wasikowska fully commits to her role and takes it to some weird places, so if you’re a fan of her work that may well be sufficient to give this film a try. Judy and Punch, while it also goes to some dark places, is ultimately a far less claustrophobic and more optimistic work which I feel far more comfortable in recommending.

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